The Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) will soon be reviewing submissions for its eleventh annual undergraduate Research Paper Competition (submissions are due by midnight PST on 1/31/2017). ICPSR is a consortium of academic institutions and research organizations that maintains an impressive data archive in the social and behavioral sciences, providing access to rich data sets on aging, arts, attitudes, criminal justice, economics, education, elections, political behavior, psychology, substance abuse, terrorism, and other fields. Part of ICPSR’s role as a data steward includes providing a variety of educational opportunities for students and researchers to learn more about working with data. To mark the occasion of this year’s research paper competition, let’s take a look back at the last ten years’ winners.
As one of two ICPSR representatives at my institution (Connecticut College), my interest in the past winners is to see what kind of work they did so I can promote the competition at my home institution. That means I want to see what data are being used and who is using them. One thing that’s great about ICPSR is that every study has a unique ID number, so it can be easily discovered or shared among researchers. Unfortunately for my purposes, some of the information requested on the Entry Form for the competition, specifically the ICPSR study number, does not appear clearly in the public view of past winners.
This is frustrating because it makes it difficult to determine exactly what data are used in the winning papers. One has to open each paper individually and carefully search it. According to my review of all 26 previous undergraduate winners (there are numerous winners each year), more than a third do not cite the unique ICPSR study number (ID) in their references (e.g. of an ICPSR study number would be ICPSR31521, which when searched on the ICPSR site will take you directly to the data set). Another third of past winners do not cite it accurately (e.g. ICPSR02597 does not seem to exist and it is not obvious to remove the first 0 in order to find it). My findings indicate that only a minority of winning papers accurately cite the ICPSR study number (ID) for the data they used. A list of data sets used for each paper is documented in my review linked above.
In terms of who was using the data, my main interest is in which department the research was undertaken. Unfortunately again, there is neither class- nor department-specific information provided for the winning papers. Instead, the Entry Form asks applicants for their expected majors and/or minors upon graduation. For the most part, this information carries over to the public view of the winners, as represented in the chart below. But to give an example of when it does not, take a look at the 2012 second place RCMD winning paper, “Black Feminism and Hip Hop: A Cross-Generational Disconnect.”* With this winning paper we cannot tell what the student’s expected major was, and moreover we don’t know in which course or department the work was done, except that it was for Professor R. Khari Brown at Wayne State University. But why does the major/minor matter anyway? And if the work was done early in the undergraduate experience, the major could have changed between winning this award and actually graduating.
Besides, an excellent research paper could have been done in Economics, Sociology, or Political Science, for example, by an English or Religious Studies major. The major could therefore be considered irrelevant. What matters is the course and department in which the winning work was done. Such information would lend itself to thinking about ways of replicating or furthering the research in similar courses or departments at other institutions. It is nonetheless interesting to see that the greatest number of past winners for whom a major is given went on to receive degrees in Economics (28.1%), Sociology (18.8%), and Psychology (15.6%). Perhaps more interesting still, is that the next largest group of winners (12.5%) did not list a major; enough to change the results significantly depending on what they were.
Another aspect of who is using the data that matters to me, is what sort of institution they come from. Fortunately, this information is clearly provided for all winning papers. It is not surprising that research universities account for half of the winning research. What is somewhat surprising and a little exciting for me is that Liberal Arts Colleges makeup about a quarter of previous winners. This means that students at my institution should plan to submit their research and expect to do well, since so many of our peers already have.
My takeaway from this brief review of past winners is that the winning work is impressive and exciting. I want my institution to focus on submitting papers to this competition in the years ahead. However, as a liaison librarian, I wish there was more clear information about what classes and in which departments the winners did their work. I also think it is not sufficiently clear exactly what data were used for many of the winning papers. Moving forward, I recommend that the Research Paper Competition Winners website clearly indicate each of the following for all winning papers:
- ICPSR study number (ID) used
- Class in which the research was undertaken
- Department in which the research was undertaken
While collecting and sharing this kind of information about applicants could help attract interest in the ICPSR Research Paper Competition moving forward, I certainly hope researchers everywhere will take the occasion of this review to spread the word and get submissions ready for the upcoming deadline on January 31, 2017.
*The RCMD competition is for papers written on data held within the Resource Center for Minority Data archive and/or on a topic relevant to the focus of that archive.